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A thought for Sunday: The Abyss always looks back, Presidential polling edition

A thought for Sunday: The Abyss always looks back, Presidential polling edition

A point I have made about economic forecasting a number of times is that one can be an excellent forecaster, so long as one is a bug on the wall. Once a significant number of people begin to follow *and act upon* the forecast, to that extent it must necessarily lose validity.

Take for example the yield curve, much in the news this year. So long as everyone ignores or excuses a yield curve inversion, it is an excellent indicator for the period of 12-24 months ahead. But if everyone *acted* on a yield curve inversion, by, e.g., canceling investments or increasing savings, it would turn into a botched “nowcast” instead. That which people might have started doing a year later, they would be doing now, when the conditions don’t yet necessitate it.

Simply put, people will act upon forecasts. The more previously reliable or certain the forecast, the more people will act on it — and thereby change the result.

This past week’s publication of former FBI Director James Comey’s book shows how the same principle applies to Presidential election polling.  Here’s the passage that has been getting a lot of scrutiny:

It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have it the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.

Leave aside for now that it was not for Comey to decide whether or not Clinton would be “an illegitimate president” — that’s what we have criminal juries and Impeachment for —  or that he simultaneously withheld from voters that Trump’s campaign was *also* under investigation at the time. The fact is that he was led by polling and poll aggregators who claimed that a Clinton victory was a near certainty to take an action that he probably would not otherwise have done.  And that action caused a near-immediate decline in Clinton’s poll numbers by about 4%, while early voting was actually going on in many states. All because Comey knew that Clinton’s election was “in the bag.”

In a similar vein, why was Barack Obama so passive in the face of the intelligence community telling him that Russia was trying to intervene in the election by, e.g., planting “fake news” stories? He was President. He did not need Mitch McConnell’s permission to address the nation in as non-partisan a fashion as possible. He didn’t act because he knew that Clinton’s election was “in the bag.” Isn’t that what Biden was sent to Europe to reassure all of our allies about?

There’s also been some detailed analysis indicating that there were enough Sanders to Jill Stein voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to swing the outcomes in those States and thereby alter the election outcome. I think it’s a near certainty that these people felt comfortable casting such protest votes because they knew that Clinton’s election was “in the bag.”

To paraphrase the title of this post: when you look into the Future, the Future always looks back.

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A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning

A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning

Today’s New York Times has a fine article by Manil Suri about math education and the development of reasoning skills.  Its concluding point is that, while the general contribution of the first to the second is weaker than you might think, math instruction can be improved by bringing the math-reasoning tests themselves into the classroom.  I’m pretty confident that Suri is right, since I’ve seen positive results from doing something similar in economics and related areas.

When preparing to introduce a new topic in econ, for instance, I’ll often start by taking stock of what lots of people without an economics background think they know about it.  This might mean looking at surveys or some excerpts from news or other websites.  It often involves drawing out this information from the class itself.  For instance, I’ll divide students up into groups of five or so in which they can say to each other what they believe, or even suspect, about the topic, and then have the groups report in a general way what these views were.  (I try to use methods that don’t identify potentially mistaken concepts with specific people, to avoid any sense I’m trying to belittle anyone.)  Then we will go on to learn about the question, keeping in mind the misconceptions we’ve found and trying to locate the points at which “pop economics” veers off from the real stuff.*

There are many reasons for doing this.  One is frankly political: a lot of the political babble in this country is framed by erroneous economic thinking, such as nearly all the fretting over “the national debt”.  (Every time I bring this up in the context of the income accounting identities I see expanding eyeballs all across the classroom.)  Another is pedagogical: if you don’t put effort into deconstructing pre-existing beliefs as well as developing new knowledge, what you will see on papers and exams is a weird mishmash of the two.  It took me too many years to figure this out.  But a third is the insight Suri also came to, that using an external point of reference to step outside oneself and observe one’s own learning process provides a powerful boost to learning of all sorts.  The misunderstandings of pop econ provide a baseline from which students can measure their progress; they illuminate what they are learning and how.

The name for this is meta-learning (or deutero-learning in cybernetic-speak).  It is foregrounded by activities that help students get outside the technique or concept immediately in front of them and see their learning of it as the object of attention.  Like all forms of learning, it is best approached inductively and in context: rather than give lectures on meta-learning, provide exercises that call attention to it in situ.  I incorporated material to support meta-learning in my textbooks, more in the second (macro) than the first (micro), since I was learning (and meta-learning!) as I went along.

I’ve come to think that explicit incorporation of meta-learning may be the single most important innovation to transform teaching.  For those of you who have this a day (or night) job, give it a try.

*Just to be clear, “real” economics is not mean “sanctified by the mainstream”, just conceptual approaches that can be supported by careful reasoning and empirical data.  Some mainstream econ is rather closer to the pop variety than to legitimate analysis.

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C’mon, M’Honey, URINE THE MONEY! (you’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along.)

The REAL Trump pee-tape was a urine sampling pyramid scheme.

Whatever happened to Trump neckties?” asks  Zane Anthony, Kathryn Sanders and David A. Fahrenthold at the Washington Post, “They’re over. So is most of Trump’s merchandising empire.” Among the products that Trump lent his name to, for a fee, was a vitamin supplement, supposedly custom formulated based on the results of a urine test:

“Take a snapshot of the most critical metabolic markers in your body’s natural waste fluids,” said the website for the Trump Network, a vitamin company that sent its customers urine-sample kits with the Trump logo on them. The tests would be used to determine what vitamins the customer needed, according to archived versions of the Trump Network website.

As usual, the authors of this article miss the point of the enterprise, despite the Washington Post Wonkblog having covered it two years earlier. The overpriced vitamin supplements and quack urine tests were only window dressing. The real “product” the Trump Network sold was the “opportunity” to get rich quick by selling pseudo-scientific piss takes.

YouTube videos of Trump doing his urine test pitch have surprisingly few views, considering the man is “President of the United States” and his performance selling a get-rich-quick scam is, word-for-word and gesture-for-gesture, all he is and all he has ever been: pure flim-flam and puffery.

What bothers me, though, is not Don-the-con selling pie-in-the-sky schemes to suckers. What bothers me is what his kind of swindle reveals about the “legitimate” economy. The difference between a crude Ponzi scheme and conventional economic policy  is a question of degree, not of kind.
Hyman Minsky argued that there are both “legitimate” and “fraudulent” forms of Ponzi finance. The distinction seems to hinge on matters of perceptions and intentions. Ponzi finance thus may be regarded as legitimate if dividends are paid on the basis of income that has been accrued but hasn’t yet been received. Whether that income has actually been accrued and is going to be received is a matter of judgment about asset quality. A term deposit at the bank is one thing, a horde of Bitcoin is something else.
The quality of assets changes over time and is influenced by economic policy. “Everything that you do to encourage investment,” Minsky claimed, “encourages debt financing. This increases instability.” Here is the congressional testimony where he said that almost 40 years ago: June 20, 1978, from Special Study on Economic Change, Hearings before the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, Ninety-Fifth Congress, Second Session, page 858:

Representative BOLLING: I would like to begin by asking Mr. Minsky a question due to my own ignorance. This is my weakest area. I don’t claim to be an economist, just a political economist. I need to know some things. In your statement, next to the last page — the second sentence in the first full paragraph — there are few words and a lot said. I want to be sure I understand it.

To decrease the emphasis on debt, the full employment rather than economic growth should become the proximate objective of policy;

Now, I would like you to explain that to me. I don’t understand exactly what you mean.

Mr. MINSKY: I don’t believe it is an accident that we have had increased instability and increased inflation since the emphasis shifted toward economic growth during the Kennedy-Johnson administration.

Everything that you do to encourage investment encourages debt financing. This increases instability. The simple example is that during the 10 years it takes to put a nuclear power plant on stream the workers producing that nuclear power plant are receiving income, spending that income on consumer goods, and not producing any consumer goods in exchange. So every time you increase the ratio of investment expenditures to consumer goods expenditures in the economy, prices rise.

Any time a higher proportion of a wage bill is used to pay for people who are earning investment income compared to the wage bill that is used in the production of consumer goods, consumer goods prices will increase. This, in turn, means that the wages of workers will go up. This is a very simple idea.

It takes 10 years before you get a kilowatt out of a nuclear power plant. People all the way back to the producers of input into that complicated thing meanwhile are spending. Every time you build a plant that does not quickly pay off you are producing inflation in the country.

Every time England goes out and builds a Concorde you produce inflation. Any banker and businessman knows that for every investment project worth doing there are thousands that are not. Everything you do to increase growth by way of increasing investment, offer incentives to undertake things that are not worth doing in a pure private account, you produce inflation.

Perhaps Minsky’s “very simple idea” was a bit too simple. What if economic policy was used to encourage investment and debt financing but suppress the wages of workers? Voila! Perpetual, non-inflationary growth! A non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment! Instead of letting the instability and inflation infect the whole economy, why not target it on those dumb fucks who have no political traction anyway? If the rabble become restive, they can always be placated by chauvinist circuses and slick get-rich-quick scams.

So much winning! As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, “Weeks, months or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.)”

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Eviction Data Base shows we have a housing crisis

I am posting this NPR Fresh Air radio article here because it talks about a part of our society that has not been talked about much.  When it comes to discussion of taxation, social programs, how our economy works, the basic premise of free market misses an awful lot.

From the page:

For many poor families in America, eviction is a real and ongoing threat. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S. in 2016 — a rate of four every minute.

“Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty,” Desmond says. “Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability [and] community instability.”

Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. His latest project is The Eviction Lab, a team of researchers and students at Princeton University dedicated to amassing the nation’s first-ever database of eviction. To date, the Lab had collected 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia.

“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities,” Desmond says. “Our hope is that we can take this problem that’s been in the dark and bring it into the light.”

One stat that stood out: The average age of the homeless is 9 years old.  That is how many homeless are children.

Incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but housing costs have soared. So between 1995 and today, median asking rents have increased by 70 percent…So when we picture the typical low income American today, we shouldn’t think of them living in public housing or getting any kind [of] housing assistance for the government, we should think of folks who are paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their income and living unassisted in the private rental market. That’s our typical case today.

What is understood after listening is again, as a nation we are penny wise and pound foolish.  Somehow, some way we have to get this nation to understand it is less expensive to take care of people than it is to let them live in disparate poverty.

Stabilizing a home has all sorts of positive benefits for a family. The kid gets to finish school. The neighborhood doesn’t lose a crucial neighbor. The family gets to root down and get to understand the value of a home and avoid homelessness. And for all of us, I think [we] have to recognize that we’re paying the cost of eviction because whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. …

 

Enjoy.

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Last Chicago Sears Store Closing

This particular Sears opened in 1938 with over 100,000 people visiting it during its 1st day. The store was located at the intersection of Irving Park Road, Cicero Avenue, and Milwaukee Avenue known as Six Corners and situated on the edge of the Portage Park Community. Hillman’s grocery was located in the basement. Hillmans later moved across the street and the Sears expanded. It was a prosperous store and offered many amenities including the customary auto repair garage and the largest window display in the city outside the Loop.

A little history of the Portage Park area. The community was located on the northwest side of Chicago. We did not locate there until the fifties near Byron Street and Lamon Avenue which was an easy walk to Six Corners and this Concrete Sears or to catch a bus to Logan Square where the L stopped originally. The L would become a subway and took passengers to the “Loop” where the trains made a circle (hence the Loop) and headed back out to Logan Square. I would later take the electric buses (called green hornets due to the antenna extending from the top of the bus to the power lines) to Addison Avenue and catch diesel or propane buses to Lane Technical High School situated next to Riverview an amusement park. We could watch them test the roller coasters before they opened up for the season. Riverview closed and is now occupied by a large shopping area. The high school still remains a magnet school boasting of having more of its graduates going on to college and obtaining doctorates than any other high school.

Immigrants who originally located in the city made the move to the Portage Park community to escape the concrete and the closeness of the city to be in the openness of the area. West on Irving Park Road, Portage Park was established in 1913. Originally it was built with a sand bottom lagoon where the nearby residents could wade in the water. Later it was replaced with a kidney shaped pool. Finally in 1959, the city build an Olympic sized lap pool and diving pool to accommodate the Pan American Games. Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Spitz set world records at the pool in 1972, when the U.S. Olympic swim trials were held at the park.

Designed by Chicago architects Nimmons, Carr & Wright, the costly $1 million store was the first of the company’s gigantic solid-walled stores in Chicago featuring the largest display window in the city at the time in 1938. Other Sears stores had relied on windows for addition light and outside air circulation.

The Six Corners store (pictures) relied on artificial lighting and air conditioning making it a great place to go to escape the Summer heat.”The new Store Planning and Display Department planned layouts for the 1938 store, diagrammed all display sections, and suggested space allocations for the various lines of merchandise. Sears studied customer’s habits, flow of traffic into and through stores, recorded sales by stores and by lines and departments on a national basis. The Department also developed special lighting and display fixtures designed to optimize presentation of the merchandise.” It was a revolutionary design which helped Sears grow early on in 1938.

If you read some of the early history, Sears had a plan in how to appeal to customers strategically using carefully allocated space by sales volume.

Strict definition of departments were established and the number of price lines a store carried in relation to sales was developed. A complete survey was undertaken showing what divisions were profitable and why and what divisions were over or under-spaced. A thorough examination of the merchandise presentation of each individual unit, plus a traffic picture showing the number of transactions, the average transaction, and other data pertinent to the nature and density of the business was done periodically. Finally, each store’s “profit history” was studied to determine what percentage of profits could justifiably be put back into the store for remodeling or enlarging.

For kids before Christmas, this store had taken half of a floor and devoted it to Christmas toys. Many were the days when we were out of grade school and we would visit the Toy Floor as we called it to see what was new and play with the toys on the tables setup to show them off. Often times and after a bit, we would be chased by the sales personnel stationed on the floor to ring up the sales. Of course, we would return later or the next day dependent on how grumpy the sales personnel were.

The closing of this particular store, the Six Corners Sears & Roebuck, closes out a chapter in my life and of something simpler in life.

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Is raising wages becoming a taboo?

(Dan here…I have highlighted NDd’s conclusion. This is a long post but worth thinking about…)

So in conclusion, while I have no doubt that the “monopsony” argument is measuring something real, I am more and more inclined to believe that raising wages is simply becoming an ideological taboo among businesses, a higher priority than maximizing net profits after costs.

 

by New Deal democrat

Is raising wages becoming a taboo?

Yesterday I noted that, while the problem of lower labor market participation among the working age population hasn’t *entirely* resolved, it is getting close to resolving due to the surge in entry into the jobs market in the last two years. As the graph below shows, not only has the prime age population grown by about 2 million in the last 2.5 years (blue), but nearly an additional 2 million (1.5% of 125 million) have entered the labor force (red):
But,while in accord with the last two expansions, nominal wage growth bottomed out once the U6 underemployment rate fell to roughly 9%, for nonsupervisory workers, it has languished at about 2.5%:
This is less than the roughly 4.5% peaks in the past 3 expansions.
Why?
MONOPONY VS. SKITTISHNESS VS. TABOO
One explanation is in the first graph above itself. All else being equal, even accounting for population growth, there are 2,000,000 more candidates for jobs in the prime age labor force than there were 30 months ago. More competition for jobs should act to hold down compensation.
But recently another explanation has been written about at length: monopsony in the labor market. In more plain english, this is a monopoly or at least oligopoly on the demand side for labor. Increased market power to hold down wages, it is argued, is having that exact effect:

[I]n recent years, economists have discovered another source: the growth of the labor market power of employers — namely, their power to dictate, and hence suppress, wages…..[I]n many areas of rural America, [where] large-scale employers that dominate their local economies[, w]orkers can either choose to take the jobs on offer or incur the turmoil of moving elsewhere. Companies can and do take advantage of this leverage.

Yet another source of labor market power are so-called noncompete agreements …. These agreements prohibit workers who leave a job from working for a competitor of their former employer.

Almost a quarter of all workers report that their current employer or a former employer forced them to sign a noncompete clause…..[S]tudies have found that employer concentration has been increasing over time and that this concentration is associated with lower wages across labor markets.

….{Monopsonistic f]irms [which pay less than “competitive” wages] bear the loss in workers (and resulting lowered sales)  in exchange for the higher profits made off the workers who do not quit.

While the evidence appears compelling that employer market power is having *an* effect of holding down wages, I am not sure at all that it is the *primary* driver of low wages.
At least two other explanations for employers refusing to raise wages come to mind:
  1.  employer skittishness about the durability of a strong economy.
  2.  raising wages has become a taboo
Let me explain each.
Suppose I am an employer in competition with others. Suppose further, however, that I am skeptical that the current “good times” are going to last. After all, since 2000 there have only been about 4 years at most (2005-07 and 2017) where the economy has seemed to be operating at close to full throttle.  If I raise wages now, I will attract more workers, but then when the good times end, I will be stuck with a higher paid workforce than my competitors who haven’t raised wages. If I think that “bad times” are likely to exist more often than “good times” in the foreseeable future, then I might hold back on increasing my labor costs during the good times, leaving some additional profits on the table, because that will be more than offset by having relatively lowers costs during the bad times.
By an economic taboo, I mean a decision to leave profits on the table because they conflict with an even higher priority held by the employer (e.g., I refuse to higher a clearly more qualified black job applicant because I am a racist). Let’s suppose that I am an employer who *does* believe that the good times are likely to last, BUT I also believe that people who come to work for me ought to be grateful to earn, say $10 per hour, and because of my firm ideological belief, I am not going to budge. If I am alone in my ideological belief, I will suffer. But if my ideological belief is shared on a widespread basis by my competitors and other businesses, I am *not* at a competitive disadvantage. Thus depressed wages may persist because raising wages has become a taboo.
USING THE JOLTS SURVEY TO DISCRIMINATE AMONG THE HYPOTHESES
So, how can we tell if the primary driver of employer decisions not to raise wages is monopsony, skittishness, or taboo?
The JOLTS survey appears to give us a good look at the likely answer. JOLTS measures job openings, actual hires, and quits, among other things. Let me show you how.
To begin with, if skittishness about the durability of a strong economy is the primary driver of lower wages, I would not expect those employers to even go looking for new employees to hire at higher wages. In other words, there wouldn’t be an elevated number of job openings compared with actual hires, because skittish employers simply aren’t in the market.
On the other hand, both in the cases of monopsony power and taboo, I *would* expect to see elevated job openings, as in either case those employers *do* want to hire new workers — they just want to hire those workers at what they define as their “fair” price, And that is exactly what we see in the JOLTS data during this expansion compared with the last one:
That is pretty compelling evidence that it is not economic skittishness that is driving low wage growth.
Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari appears to agree:

“Almost everywhere I go, businesses tell me they can’t find workers. I always ask them the same question: ‘Are you raising wages?’ Usually, the answer is ‘no.’ When you want more of something but won’t pay for it, that’s called ‘whining,’” he told the ninth Regional Economic Indicators Forum (REIF), founded and co-sponsored by National Bank of Commerce.  “Until you’re paying more, I know you’re not serious.”

So, how can we decide between the other two hypotheses? The Wall Street Journal (via Fundera) seems to think that smaller firms are offering bigger wage inducements:

The WSJ says small businesses across the country are increasing their wages at a faster rate than medium-size or even large firms. All industries with businesses made  up of 49 or fewer employees saw a pay bump of just over 1%.

But the evidence is anecdotal, not hard data.
 Again, the JOLTS survey seems to provide an answer in two parts.
First, as mentioned in the monopsony piece above, such firms should have “higher profits made off the workers who do not quit.”
So let’s look at the “Quits rate” in the JOLTS survey:
Workers are quitting their jobs at virtually the same rate in this expansion as during the last one, during which wage growth was higher. There simply isn’t a bigger pool of “workers who do not quit.”
A second thing we ought to find, if monopsony is the primary driver of low wage growth, is that  bigger firms with market power ought to have unfilled job openings at a much higher rate than firms in small, more competitive labor markets. This is backed up by a scientific study:

[I[n a competitive labor market, such “shortages” [of hiring compared with job openings as measured in the JOLTS report] should dissipate as employers competitively bid up wages to fill their vacancies. But counter to this prediction, Rothstein (2015) finds no evidence that wages have grown faster in sectors with rising job openings. Instead, the failure of hiring and wage growth to keep pace with the rise in job openings is consistent with the incentives faced by firms in an imperfectly competitive labor market; it suggests that companies have a strong interest in hiring workers at their offered wages, but have resisted bidding up wages in order to expand their workforces (Abraham 2015).

As it happens, we are able to able to infer a comparison in Rothstein’s metric between large and small firms.
Above I showed job openings (blue) vs. actual hires (red) in the JOLTS survey. The National Federation of Small Business conducts a similar survey among its members. Here are their graphs of job openings and actual hiring from their most recent report:
Small business owners clearly started singing “Happy Days are Here Again” on the day after the 2016 Presidential election.  And their job openings soared.
But their actual hires didn’t. They are adding jobs at the same level as they did in 2014 and 2015. They are behaving as if they have a taboo against raising wages.
So in conclusion, while I have no doubt that the “monopsony” argument is measuring something real, I am more and more inclined to believe that raising wages is simply becoming an ideological taboo among businesses, a higher priority than maximizing net profits after costs.

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Unresolved Issues In Happiness Economics From The Conference Honoring The Retirement Of The Field’s Founder

Unresolved Issues In Happiness Economics From The Conference Honoring The Retirement Of The Field’s Founder

That would be Richard A. Easterlin, age 92, retiring this spring from the U. of Southern California after being there since 1981, following an earlier stint at U. of Penn, where he got his PhD under Simon Kuznets.  Kuznets in turn got his from Wesley Clair Mitchell, who was in turn the student of Thorstein Veblen, and it was mentioned (by me actually) at this conference that happened over this past weekend at USC that Easterlin’s work has emphasized the issue of social comparisons that was strongly developed by Veblen in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class.  This applies not only to his famous Easterlin Paradox, the starting shot shown in his long ignored 1974 book chapter that started happiness economics, but also in his earlier Easterlin Hypothesis on demography in economic history.  As it was, this conference focused on happiness economics, with several leading figures in the field present.  I shall note some matters that were disputed at the conference and remain open.

Probably the most hotly disputed is the matter of the relationship between age and happiness (more frequently labeled “social well being” or “life satisfaction”).  The current more or less conventional  view is that this is on average a U-shaped relation, at least in the US, with people happy at 20 but with this declining to about 45 or so, and then rising after that.  There are serious problems with measuring this, especially the fact that we do not have full panel data following individuals throughout their lives so as to avoid the bias induced by the fact that happier people tend to live longer than unhappy ones, which skews results at the upper age end for simple cross-section studies.  A more recent finding from European nations suggests this may be more of an M-shape, with happiness actually rising a bit from 20 into the late 20s or so, declining to about 45, rising to about 70, but then either plateauing or even declining slightly after that.

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EXPECT A CORE CPI OF 2.4% IN 2018

In a low inflation world firms tend to raise prices once a year — typically in the first quarter or the first quarter of their fiscal year. Consequently, over half of the annual increase in the not seasonally adjusted core CPI occurs in the first quarter and doubling the first quarter increase gives an amazingly accurate estimate of the annual rise in the core CPI.

Figure 1

This year the first quarter rise in the not seasonally adjusted core CPI was 1.2% as compared to 0.9% in 2017. This implies the core CPI will be up 2.4% in 2018 versus 1.8% last year. This would be the largest annual increase in the core CPI in a decade.

Figure 2

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Krugman, Mundell, Fleming, Summers, DeLong, and Rogoff

Here I go again, commenting on Krugman. But this time on a 5 year old talk on the risk that investors will lose confidence in the solvency of the US Treasury “CURRENCY REGIMES, CAPITAL FLOWS, ANDCRISES”. I think the talk about the risks of excessive budget deficits and unsustainable debt accumulation is much more relevant today than it was in 2013, since Republicans currently in power (not just Trump) will eliminate confidence that the US Treasury will pay its debts, if that is possible.

Krugman, however, thinks that a country which borrows in its own currency and allows the exchange rate to float can never be insolvent — the government can always monetized deficits and inflate away the value of its debt. He also argues that if investors lost faith in the US Treasury and decided Treasury notes and bonds would be worth little (either because of default or inflation) then the result would be a depreciation of the dollar.

He presents models in which this would stimulate demand for an economy in the liquidity trap (as the USA was in 2013). The counter argument is that this depreciation would cause a financial crisis in the USA. The key point of disagreement is explained by Krugman here:

Several commentators – for example, Rogoff (2013) — have suggested that a sudden stop of capital inflows provoked by concerns over sovereign debt would inevitably lead to a banking crisis, and that thiscrisis would dominate any positive effects from currency depreciation. If correct, this would certainly undermine the optimism I have expressed about how such a scenario would play out.

The question we need to ask here is why, exactly, we should believe that a sudden stop leads to a banking crisis. The argument seems to be that banks would take large losses on their holdings of government bonds. But why, exactly? A country that borrows in its own currency can’t be forced into default, and we’ve just seen that it can’t even be forced to raise interest rates. So there is no reason the domestic-currency value of the country’s bonds should plunge. The foreign-currency value of those bonds may indeed fall sharply thanks to currency depreciation, but this is only a problem for the banks if they have large liabilities denominated in foreign currency, a topic I address below

Here Krugman assumes investors are rational. Loss of confidence in the US Treasury doesn’t logically imply loss of confidence in banks. Larry Summers and Brad DeLong argue that investors are irrational and loss of one kind of confidence spills over to fear itself, which we have to fear. Knowing that economic agents are irrational but modeling rational ones implies that we know more than what is in our models.

I guess that the argument is that irrational fear due to sharp depreciation of the dollar could cause a banking crisis in the USA, even though it shouldn’t because US banks have dollar denominated liabilities. I further guess that it is true that general panic could cause a banking crisis in the USA — this doesn’t even have to be irrational — if there are multiple Nash equilibria assuming even Magic Nash rationality isn’t enough to rule out the possibility — a self fulfilling prophecy is a sunspot equilibrium not irrationality.

However, it does seem possible to rule out bad possibilities with rules. Economies used to have bank runs. Now they don’t because there is deposit insurance and/or a lender of last resort. The crisis of 2008 involved non-depository institutions which were acting as shadow banks transforming maturity so they had long term assets and short term liabilities. They weren’t covered by deposit insurance nor were they regulated much.

The Dodd-Frank act may have vastly reduced this risk. It is clear that the risk of financial crises can be very low — there wasn’t one n the USA during the long period of tight regulation from the 1930s through the 1970s. Nixon’s shift from fixed to floating exchange rates was a dramatic event in which the US government said it couldn’t keep a (non legally binding) promise. There was no banking crisis.

This means that the reasonable response to the concerns of Rogoff, DeLong, and Summers is to make sure regulations are sufficiently tight. Unfortunately, this too is highly relevant now. In addition to slashing taxes and raising spending, Congress also decided to relax regulations on medium sized banks with assets up to $249,999,999,999.99 . The argument is that this time the consequences of deregulation will be different.

It is too bad that a 5 year old discussion of possible problems is so topical. The change is that the possible risks have become probable now when Trump replaced Obama.

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